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Demonstration: Central London Traffic Disruption

Volume 448: debated on Monday 20 February 1984

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2.53 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why a politically-orientated demonstration was allowed to block motorised access to the Palace of Westminster during mid-morning to early afternoon of Tuesday 24th January; what warning, if any, was issued to the public that traffic in central London would be immobilised during this period; and when and by what means that warning was issued.

My Lords, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis has told my right honourable and learned friend the Home Secretary that on 24th January a march of about 15,000 people, organised by the "Save Local Government Campaign", went from Hyde Park to Jubilee Gardens. The march began at 12.15 pm and took some three hours to complete its route. There was some traffic disruption, which the police sought to minimise by signposting traffic diversions and by closing and opening roads as the march passed. All officers employed on traffic duty were instructed to assist the passage of Members of Parliament. The march did not contravene the directions given by the commissioner to his officers, in pursuance of the sessional orders of your Lordships' House and of another place, to facilitate the passage of Members to and from both Houses. The police placed signs giving advance warning of the likely traffic difficulties to motorists at 44 strategic points in central London on 16th January. In addition, local radio stations broadcast the information in motoring bulletins in the evening of 23rd January and on 24th January.

My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for his Answer to my Question, may I ask him this? Would not my Question and his Answer have been more topical, albeit below the level of urgency of a Private Notice Question, if the Question list had not been congested for the month ahead by those noble Lords who, no longer being newcomers to this House, and therefore immune from opposition, have abused Question Time by making it a platform for their private obsesssions, in my view, habitually and repetitiously?

My Lords, I share my noble friend's concern with the conventions of this House. Therefore, I have to reply to him that, if he has a question about Questions, that is another question about which he ought to put down a Question.

My Lords, will the noble Lord reassure my noble friend that if he carries his parliamentary pass in his spectacle case, as I do, and wishes to approach this House at one of these difficult moments, if he waves the pass out of the window of his car he will be let through, as I was?

My Lords, I imagine that it all depends on whether at the time you wave the pass you are at the front or the back of the queue.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that on the date in question the Mall, Constitution Hill and Marlborough Gate were all closed, in order presumably to assist this essay in political pedestrianism? Is he also aware of the fact that unless, as he has indicated, you were at the front of the queue, you could wave as many bits of paper about as you wanted and it would have no effect? In those circumstances was there not in fact a failure by the commissioner to carry out the sessional orders which are explicit that access to this Palace must be permitted?

My Lords, under the sessional orders of both Houses, the commissioner is required to facilitate the passage of Members to and from Parliament during the Sittings. The commissioner in turn directs his officers to disperse all assemblies or processions of persons causing or likely to cause disruption or disorder on any Sitting day within a specified area around Parliament. The area is bounded by a long list of streets with which I shall not trouble your Lordships by reading them out, but in effect what the route of the march did was to go round the edge of that area. Had the area been enlarged, as I think my noble friend would have wished it to be, I suspect the result would have been merely to increase the area of congestion within its limits. There is a difficulty here, but I think that it is right that citizens should have the ability to voice their opposition to Government, which is—

Those supporting noises would have come perhaps from another place had I been sitting in another place when I voiced that sentiment.

My Lords, would the noble Lord the Minister convey to the Metropolitan Police congratulations for all the care that they took with notices in order to give warning of this procession? Can the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, be thanked by this House for advertising the width and strength of the feeling that must have been behind the procession which filled so many parts of London on that day?

My Lords, I did in fact witness the efficiency with which the police dealt with this event. I am glad to endorse what the noble Lord says. Judging by the noises that followed the resumption by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, of his seat, the House wishes to thank my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter.

My Lords, while most gratefully acknowledging the thanks of my noble friend and the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, may I ask whether it is not also possible to infer that if 15,000 people from local government offices could leave their desks without leave during the day without any apparent reduction in the efficiency of local government, it would suggest that local government is grossly overstaffed?

My Lords, would the Minister not agree that if the average person's time is valued at a modest £5 an hour, and if 100,000 people were delayed for up to an hour and a half (which may be an underestimate), the cost to the general public of this demonstration is in the order of £¾ million in lost time alone, to say nothing of the cost of air pollution from exhaust fumes and of petrol wasted by engines ticking over?

My Lords, there is no doubt that it was a very annoying occasion for a lot of people, but I should not wish to hearten those who participated by suggesting that it was any more annoying than it really was.

My Lords, I intervene, I hope for the very last time, to ask the House to note that, while an estimate has been given of the cost of the procession, the Government unfortunately have been unable to put forward any estimate at all of the cost that is supposed to be saved by this abandonment of local government.

My Lords, the noble Lord tempts me very sorely to depart from the Order Paper and debate the merits of the measure, but I shall resist the temptation.